The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body. One Saturday in March, fog crept through the river valley and froze overnight. The morning sun crackled over a ghostly landscape across the road from my uncle’s general store, the burr oaks that leaned out over the banks of the North Fork River crystallized with a thick crust of hoarfrost. The tree nearest the road was dead, half-hollow, and it leaned farther than the rest, balanced at a precarious angle above the water. A trio of vultures roosted in the branches, according to Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County Record. Buddy snapped pictures of the tree, the stark contrast of black birds on white branches, for lack of anything better to print on the front page of the paper. It was eerie, he said. Haunting, almost. He moved closer, kneeling at the water’s edge to get a more interesting angle, and that was when he spied the long brown braid drifting in the shallows, barely visible among the stones. Then he saw Cheri’s head, snagged on a piece of driftwood: her freckled face, abbreviated nose, eyes spaced too wide to be pretty. Stuffed into the hollow of the tree were the rest of Cheri’s pieces, her skin etched with burns and amateur tattoos. Her flesh was unmarked when she disappeared, and I wondered if those new scars could explain what had happened to her, if they formed a cryptic map of the time she’d spent missing.
Cheri was eighteen when she died, one year older than me. We’d lived down the road from each other since grade school, and she’d wander over to my house to play whenever she felt like it and stay until my dad made her leave. She especially liked my Barbies because she didn’t have any dolls of her own, and we’d spend all day building little houses for them out in the woodpile, making swimming pools with the hose. Her mom never once called or came looking for her, not even the time I hid her in my closet so she could stay overnight. My dad found out the next morning and started hollering at us, but then he looked at Cheri, tears dripping off her face as she wolfed down the frozen waffles I’d made her, and he shut up and fried us some bacon. He waited until she finished eating and crying before giving her a ride back home.
Kids at school—including my best friend, Bess—thought Cheri was weird and didn’t want to play with her. I knew Cheri was slow, but I didn’t realize there was actually something different about her until fourth or fifth grade, when she disappeared into the special ed class for most of the day. Newspaper articles after the murder described her as “deficient” or “developmentally disabled,” with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. We weren’t as close in high school—I’d outgrown her in certain ways and spent most of my time with Bess—but we still shared a bus stop at the fork of Toad Holler Road, and she was always there first, sitting on a log under the persimmon trees, smoking cigarettes she’d steal from her mother and picking at her various scabs. She always offered me a cigarette if she had one to spare. I didn’t know how to inhale, and she probably didn’t, either, but we sat there every morning, elbow to elbow, talking and laughing in a cloud of smoke.
One morning I beat Cheri to the bus stop. I got worried when the bus rumbled up the dirt road and she still wasn’t there, because her mom always sent her to school, sick or not, if only to get her out of the way. Days passed with no sign of her, so I walked through the woods to her mom’s trailer and knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. There were rumors she’d dropped out of school, and when somebody from the county finally went to check it out, Doris Stoddard said her daughter had run away. She hadn’t reported her missing because she figured she would come back.
Flyers were posted in shopwindows around town, and I taped several up at my uncle’s store, Dane’s, which had been in our family for generations. Above Cheri’s picture, in thick black print, was the word RUNAWAY. I wasn’t convinced that she’d left on her own, but no one shared my concern. In time, the flyers faded and curled, and when they came down, no new ones went up in their place.
A year passed between Cheri’s disappearance and her murder, and during that time hardly anybody spoke of her. It felt like nobody missed her besides me. But as soon as her body turned up, it was all anybody could talk about. It was the biggest news to hit our tiny town of Henbane in years. Camera crews arrived in hordes, parking their vans by the river to get a shot of the tree, which had sprouted a modest memorial of stuffed animals and flowers. They barged into Dane’s demanding coffee and Red Bull and complaining about the roads and poor cellphone service. People who had ignored Cheri while she was alive were suddenly eager to share their connections to the now-famous dead girl. I used to sit behind her in health class.… She rode on my tractor one year in the Christmas parade.… I was there that time she threw up on the bus.
The whole town jittered with nervous speculation, wondering where she’d been for that missing year and why she’d turned up now. It was common knowledge that in the hills, with infinite hiding places, bodies disappeared. They were fed to hogs or buried in the woods or dropped into abandoned wells. They were not dismembered and set out on display. It just wasn’t how things were done. It was that lack of adherence to custom that seemed to frighten people the most. Why would someone risk getting caught to show us what he’d done to Cheri when it would’ve been so easy to keep her body hidden? The only reasonable explanation was that an outsider was responsible, and outsiders bred fear in a way no homegrown criminal could.
In the wake of Cheri’s murder, Meyer’s Hardware ran out of locks and ammunition. Few people went out after dark, and those who did were armed with shotguns. My dad took precautions, too. He worked construction jobs where he could get them, usually a couple hours away in Springfield or Branson, and he had been letting me stay home alone a couple days at a time while he was gone. After Cheri’s body was found, he went back to driving the round-trip every day, spending hours on the road so he could be home with me at night.
I replayed our mornings together, Cheri’s and mine, sifted through our last conversations. She’d talked mostly about her “boyfriends,” pervs who hung around her mom’s trailer and told her she was pretty and tried to feel her up. Boys our age, the ones at school, were cruel. They called her a retard and made her cry. I told her to ignore them, but I never told them to stop, and that’s what I remembered when Cheri’s body turned up in the tree: the ways I had failed her. Like how I’d been her best friend but she wasn’t mine. How I’d worried something bad might have happened when she went missing, but I didn’t do anything about it. All the way back to when we were little, me being less of a friend than she thought I was. I gave her my Happy Holidays Barbie, not because it was her favorite but because I had ruined its hair.
Spring was short-lived. The hills were ecstatic with blooms, an embarrassing wealth of trees and wildflowers: dogwoods in cream and pink, clouds of bright lavender redbuds, carpets of phlox and toothwort and buttercups. Then the leaves filled out the canopy, draping the woods in shadow. The vines and underbrush greened and resumed their constant creeping, and the heat blossomed into a living thing, its unwanted hands upon us at all times. Cheri had been buried at Baptist Grove in a child’s casket—which was cheaper and plenty big to hold what was left of her—but I couldn’t stop thinking about her, how she’d shared so much with me but hadn’t said a word about running away.
By the end of May, there were no real leads in Cheri’s case. Everybody in town still talked about the murder, arguing about whether the tree where she was found should be cut down or turned into some type of memorial, though most folks had gone back to their normal routines. Dad got tired of his daily commute and went back to leaving me alone for a day or two while he worked. As time passed, it seemed less and less likely that what happened to Cheri would happen to anyone else.
The shock and fear over Cheri’s death had faded to the point that kids joked about it at school. Most of my classmates thought Mr. Girardi, our former art teacher, had killed her, despite his alibi. He had returned to Chicago around the time Cheri disappeared, having lasted less than a semester in Henbane. Back then, kids gossiped that Cheri had run away with him, that he was hot for retarded girls. Why else, they asked, would he have encouraged her pathetic attempts in class or let her eat lunch in the art room?
Mr. Girardi had been doomed from the start for the simple fact that he wasn’t a native, but he made it worse every time he opened his mouth. He didn’t know that a haint was a ghost or that puny meant sick or that holler was the way we said hollow. Ah! he said when he figured it out. So a holler is like a valley! When a kid in class welcomed him to God’s country, Mr. Girardi wondered aloud why the churches in God’s country were outnumbered by monuments to the devil. It was true: the spiny ridge of Devil’s Backbone, the bottomless gorge of Devil’s Throat, the spring bubbling forth from the Devil’s Eye—his very anatomy worked into the grit of the landscape. Mr. Girardi spent an entire class period comparing Henbane to paintings of hell. The land was rocky and gummed with red clay, the thorny underbrush populated by all manner of biting, stinging beasts. The roads twisted in on themselves like intestines. The heat sucked the breath from your chest. Even the name, he’d said before being fired for showing us a Bosch, which was full of boobs, Henbane. Another name for nightshade—the devil’s weed. He’s everywhere. He’s all around you.
I’d felt sorry for Mr. Girardi because he didn’t understand why everyone treated him like a trespasser. Tourists came through on the river, but strangers rarely moved to town, and they naturally aroused suspicion. Even though I’d lived in Henbane all my life—had been born in the clapboard house my grandpa Dane built not a mile from the North Fork River—no one could forget that my mother was a foreigner, that she had come from someplace else, even if that place was only Iowa. Some folks didn’t think it possible that the cornfields and snowdrifts of the North had produced a creature as mysterious as my mother, so they had crafted origin myths involving Gypsies and wolves. As a kid, I didn’t know if such things could be true, so I’d studied photographs of her, seeking proof of their claims. Was her long black hair evidence of Gypsy blood? Did her ice-green eyes spring from a wolf? I had to admit there was a hint of something exotic in her olive skin, the fullness of her mouth, the wideness of her eyes. I’d read somewhere that beauty could be measured by scientific means, calculated in symmetry and distance, scale of features and angles of bone. Certainly my mother was beautiful, but beauty alone couldn’t account for the effect she’d had on our small town. There was something deep-rooted, intangible, that the pictures couldn’t quite grasp.
Part of it was that they didn’t know her, Dad said. She came to work for my uncle, and folks didn’t get why he’d hired an outsider. She had no family and wouldn’t talk about her past. A woman without kin, in the town’s eyes, had been cast out, and surely not without reason. Rumor spread that she was a witch. People still told the story of my mother turning Joe Bill Sump into a snake. They said she emitted a scent that would seduce you if you got too close. That her eyes had the same rectangular pupils as a goat’s. Some even said that her grave was dug up, revealing nothing inside but a bird. None of these things was true. She had no grave because we had no body. Most of Dad’s kin, the aunts and uncles and cousins on his mother’s side, broke away, treated us like strangers—like we were tainted because of her. But I didn’t mind the talk of witchcraft, however ridiculous it was. All the better if people were wary and left me alone. It was preferable to hearing them whisper about the one undisputed truth: that when I was a baby, my mother had walked into the inky limestone labyrinth of Old Scratch Cavern with my father’s derringer pistol and never returned. Before Cheri’s death, my mother’s disappearance had been the biggest mystery in town.
On the last day of school, I walked home from the bus stop alone. Over a year had passed since Cheri made the walk with me, and I remembered how she used to linger in my driveway before continuing down the road to her trailer. As my house came into view, I noticed that without Dad’s truck parked out front, the place looked almost abandoned. The yard was a mix of rock and scrub, with Queen Anne’s lace bordering the fence. The house once was white, but the paint had worn down to a dull, splintery gray. It was a simple two-story rectangle with porches on the front and back, one of the nicer homes around when Grandpa built it, before it started to succumb to dry rot and age. It sat in a grove of walnut trees, and Grandpa Dane crowded the foundation with viburnum bushes. Grandma Dane once fell from a second-floor window while cleaning the glass, and Grandpa claimed the viburnum broke her fall and saved her life. Inside, the wood floors had long since lost their varnish, but the walls in each room were the bright cheery colors of Easter eggs, pink and aqua and orange, painted by my mother in a fit of nesting before my birth.
We kept a vegetable garden in a clearing beside the house where I’d spent countless hours picking rocks and pulling weeds. No matter how we tended the soil, the stones never stopped surfacing, denting the tiller blades every spring as they pushed their way out of the earth. Behind the house was a trickle creek that raged in the spring, and beyond that, on three sides of our property, the trees closed ranks and marched up the hillside into the Ozark Mountains.
I was in the kitchen tacking up flypaper when I heard Birdie, our nearest neighbor, warbling hullo! from the road. Birdie had been widowed for twenty years and had a habit of wearing her husband’s old overalls, the legs cuffed to fit her barely five-feet frame. She came by to check on me when Dad was gone, and even though she’d been in this house for my birth, she always hollered from the property line before coming into the yard. It was old-fashioned etiquette, she insisted, that you didn’t step on somebody’s porch without permission unless you wanted to get shot. I’d told her that kind of thing didn’t happen anymore, but she wasn’t one to break old habits.
I walked out to meet her and patted her coon dog, Merle. Birdie squinted into the late-afternoon sun, her face a web of wrinkles. When the breeze ruffled her thin white hair, pink scalp showed through. “You behaving yourself while the gravedigger’s gone?”
I held back a smile. Dad worked construction, but Birdie, like a few older folks in town, remembered the Danes as gravediggers and saw Dad as a continuation of the line. While he knew how to bury a body, he was rarely asked to do it. Still, Birdie called him “gravedigger” the same as she’d call someone “doctor,” implying pedigree and respect.
“I’m doing fine, Birdie, how about you?”
She held up the burlap sack she was carrying. “I shot a possum getting into the dog food this morning, and when I went to pick it up, wouldn’t you know, it had these darned little babies stuck all over it.” She opened the sack and Merle whined softly, glued to Birdie’s side.
I peered in. A litter of possums, each about the size of my thumb, crawled over one another. Grown possums are ugly as sin, but the babies in the bag were unbearably cute, with their tiny pink noses and feet and delicate hairless tails.
“What’re you gonna do with them?” I asked, assuming she’d probably already diced their mother up in a stew. She ate most anything she shot, with the exception of feral cats, which she threw in the burn barrel without any hint of regret.
“They’re too little to cook,” she said matter-of-factly. “Hardly any meat on ’em. Figured Gabby might want ’em, seeing how she’s got all them animals.” She handed me the sack. “Think you could run ’em over there before dark?”
Gabby, Bess’s mom, took in every type of stray, man or beast, and couldn’t turn away abandoned babies—me being an example. She and Birdie, along with my uncle Crete, had taken turns keeping me until Dad emerged from his whiskey-soaked grief with the realization that Mom wasn’t coming home.
“Sure,” I said.
“When you get back, you’re welcome to come for supper. Spare room’s always ready if you care to stay.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Just depends when I get back, I guess.” I had no intention of sleeping at Birdie’s if I didn’t have to. I used to stay with her all the time when my dad was away on construction jobs, and when he finally agreed to let me stay home alone, it was only so long as Birdie checked in on me. He knew she kept a close watch, shuffling the half-mile to our house periodically to make sure I wasn’t burning the place down or starving to death or whatever else he thought would happen without her supervision.
“Don’t dawdle, now,” she said.
We nodded goodbye and I carried the bag through the backyard, pausing to pluck some pennyroyal and rub it on my arms and legs to ward off ticks. A deer path led from the creek up toward the river, where Bess and Gabby lived in a double-wide behind Bell Tavern. The woods I walked through belonged to my dad and uncle. Each had his own chunk, though it was hard to tell where the property split. Grandpa Dane had left the general store to Crete, who was the firstborn and arguably the better businessman. Dad wasn’t bitter about it; he preferred construction work anyhow. And he hadn’t come away empty-handed. He got the house and took over the family vocation of gravedigging, though it was no longer the profitable business it had been in Grandpa’s day. It had diminished to a nearly forgotten craft, like making bentwood chairs or apple dolls, and didn’t take much time away from Dad’s real job.
Private burial was legal as long as it was done on private property, outside the city limits. Most of Dad’s business came from old folks who lacked the funds for a “city” burial, which was what they called anything involving a funeral parlor. There were others, too: hippies from the commune on Black Fork who’d rather rot in the woods than be embalmed; a preacher from the snake-handling church who hadn’t been worthy enough for God to save from the venom. There were shady circumstances, too, but Dad was known, as Danes have been known for generations, for looking the other way. Sometimes when he was drinking, he’d tell me stories I was not to repeat, of people burned up in meth lab explosions, shot in drug deals, beaten to death by jealous lovers. When he sobered up, he would apologize for scaring me and make me swear he hadn’t told me any names.
The trees thinned and I could hear the river where it raked over the shallows. “Lucy-lou,” Gabby hollered as I came into view. She was sitting in a lawn chair on the wobbly front deck, with her bare feet propped up on a cooler, her frizzy blond hair bushing around her head like a lion’s mane. She wore a terry-cloth swimsuit cover-up minus the swimsuit. “When you gonna listen and call me for a ride? You know I don’t like you walking those woods alone.”
“Sorry,” I said. Bess and I had roamed freely before Cheri’s murder, and Gabby had always encouraged it. Please, she’d say. Go disappear for a while. I kept hoping her newfound concern would wear off.
A joint smoldered between Gabby’s thumb and forefinger. “Goddamn,” she said as I walked up the steps. “You look more like your mama every time I see you. Got your hair halfway to your ass just like her. And you’re finally getting yourself some titties, praise Jesus. I was starting to worry.”
I’d always been told I looked like my mother, but over the past year, as my hair grew out and I got taller and slightly less awkward, Gabby had compared me to her constantly. It made me happy at first, to know how much I resembled my mom, but lately Gabby seemed troubled by it. I didn’t like the way she looked at me, her face all sorry and sad.
“I brought you something,” I said. She took a long drag on the joint, burning it up to her fingertips, and stubbed the roach out on her armrest. I opened the sack for her to see.
“Oh, Lordy!” she said, scooping up one of the possums and cupping it in her palm. “Where’d you get these adorable critters?”
“Birdie,” I said.
“I’m surprised she didn’t eat ’em.” Gabby stroked the possum’s silky little tail, and it curled around her finger.
The screen door squeaked open and Bess joined us on the deck, pulling her home-bleached hair away from her neck and fanning herself. “More strays?” The trailer was already home to an unknown number of cats and a rabbit with a mangled leg.
“Just look, Bessie,” Gabby said, holding up her finger. The possum hung upside down by its tail.
“Birdie shot their mom,” I said.
“Perfect.” Bess rolled her eyes at Gabby. “We know how you love the motherless.”